Written by Soleil Gaylord

Despite a global pandemic, bitter partisan divisions, and economic hardship, Americans remain overwhelmingly concerned about the climate crisis. 71% of the American population believes that global warming will harm plants, animals, and future generations, and 60% think the President should do more to address global warming.

Yet, there’s a dissonance between the public’s alarm and the federal government’s action. The U.S. Climate Action Network says the U.S. must reduce its emissions by 195% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels to limit warming to 1.5 C. The Trump administration and Interior secretaries Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt, however, stripped environmental rules, shrank national monuments, and rolled back regulations in order to increase fossil fuel extraction on public lands. The U.S. is one of the most advanced countries globally, yet it still lags far behind other nations’ climate targets. That trend, however, may be about to change. The most diverse cabinet in U.S. History — the first openly gay cabinet secretary, the first Black deputy secretary of the Treasury, and, notably, the first Native American Secretary of the Interior — bring historic professionalism, expertise, and a vision for the future to the executive branch. 

Deb Haaland’s March 15th confirmation as Interior Secretary is monumental in two regards. Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo, is the first Native American to hold the position managing the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education, the Bureau for Trust Funds Administration, and the majority of the lands where tribes have a right to hunt, fish, and sustain their cultures. Crucially, Secretary Haaland is committed to recognizing the role public lands play in combating the climate crisis. 

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Those of the resource extraction-mindset that often acted against both tribal interests and the environment have historically dominated the Interior Department. Alexander H. H. Stuart, Secretary of the Interior in the 1850s, demanded Native Americans be “civilized or exterminated.” The two most recent Secretaries, Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt, reduced national monument sizes, stripped protections for endangered species — including Colorado’s own Greater Sage Grouse — and opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, home of the Gwich’in peoples, to oil and gas leasing.

Haaland, who deftly speaks the language of preservation, stewardship, and indigenous wisdom, seeks to reverse the previous Administration’s environmental offenses. Importantly, Interior Secretary Haaland understands the enormity of the issue that is protecting our federal wildlands. The United States federal government owns and manages 640 million acres of public lands, one of our nation’s most unique endowments. U.S. wildlands provide recreational, cultural, and economic opportunities for all American citizens, but public lands are also an enormous revenue source for oil and gas companies and a substantial contributor to national emissions. For less than the price of a cup of coffee, oil and gas producers can buy and block off wildlife habitat and recreational land for decades. The U.S. Government collects billions of dollars from oil and gas royalties on public lands, a sum that pales in comparison to the trillions of dollars generated on federal lands by the outdoor recreation industry, ecosystem services, and the social benefits of carbon sequestration. Protecting wildlands and the biodiversity they support is an invaluable asset. 

The United States is the second-largest emitter behind China; to the knowledge of very few, nearly a quarter of those emissions come from fossil fuels extracted from public lands and waters. However, if preserved, public lands store carbon, provide vital wildlife habitat and ecosystem services, and serve as an intact baseline from which scientists can track anthropogenic changes in the environment. Preserving our public lands’ grandeur will inspire more Americans to take action against the dual crises of biodiversity decline and climate change. The Interior Department, which manages a vast swath of these lands, has a vital role to play in the national effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Recognizing the role public lands play in meeting climate targets precedes Haaland’s confirmation to Secretary of the Interior — Haaland was an original cosponsor of H.R.5435, the American Public Lands and Waters Climate Solution Act of 2019. This bill requires the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on public lands and certify that public lands leasing is compliant with net-zero emissions by 2040. Further, the bill elevates a critical fact — public lands today only support 5% of the nation’s renewable energy infrastructure. Bureau of Land Management lands alone, located overwhelmingly in the sun-baked west, can produce 27,000 megawatts of energy. Haaland’s legislation also includes a provision calling to protect public lands from erosion, fires, and pestilence, a crucial step towards increasing carbon sequestration. Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, which the Trump administration sought to open to logging, is one of the nation’s largest carbon sinks and is commonly referred to as America’s Amazon. 

Amidst the dual crises of biodiversity and climate, the Department of the Interior needs an individual at its helm with a vision for the future, committed to pausing fossil fuel leases, restoring sacred national monuments like Bears Ears, and preserving the land, resources, and biodiversity that have sustained Native Americans, all Americans, for generations. Haaland is the fierce advocate we need — now one of the nation’s most powerful Native American leaders. 

Mark Glenn, an active volunteer for 350 Colorado, shares in the optimism and excitement surrounding Haaland’s confirmation. “So many of the issues we come across at 350 have a public lands component, whether it’s fracking, land management, agriculture, livestock, or water rights — there’s huge potential there,” Glenn said. 

The future of the Department of the Interior, and the millions of acres of American public lands it manages, looks bright.

As a Coloradan, you can take action today by sending a letter to the Colorado State Land Board urging them to protect Colorado’s public lands. You can encourage our senators to vote for current conservation bills such as the Colorado Wilderness Act. You can also join the 350 CO Public Lands Committee, which meets regularly to discuss protecting our public lands from oil and gas extraction.

To join 350 Colorado’s movement of activists working to protect public lands and solve the global climate crisis, click here.